Russia May Have Dropped a New Kind of Cluster Bomb in Syria
Evidence is on social media
The cluster bomb is a terrifying weapon. Dropped from a plane or fired from a rocket, the bomb bursts open and spills dozens of small sub-munitions.
These tiny bomblets then explode over a wide area and are more likely to kill civilians than other kinds of munitions are — largely because unexploded bomblets linger for years after a conflict. Several international treaties ban their use, which neither Russia nor Syria have signed.
Now, it looks as though Moscow’s military might be using a new type of cluster bomb in Syria. Human Rights Watch first reported these new advanced cluster bombs on Oct. 11. It’s important to note that HRW was unable to confirm whether these new types of weapons are actually cluster bombs or if Russia even launched them.
But evidence supporting the theory is mounting on social media, and several independent journalists and observers have called the munitions out for what they seem to be — cluster bombs.
A Syrian opposition news network took the above photo of unexploded ordnance in Kafr Halab.
Armament Research Services — an independent weapons research group — took a look at the pictures and accompanying video and said it “shows the functioning of submunitions consistent with [cluster munitions] delivered by a Sukhoi Su-24 … series attack aircraft.”
“These images, allegedly taken in the countryside west of Aleppo, show SPBE submunitions which have failed to function. These have been misidentified by several observers as the later SPBE-D model, which feature differences in the seeker and control surfaces,” the researchers wrote.
ARES seems to have confirmed HRW’s cautious conclusion, but the weapons analysts also hedged their bets. “It is not possible to conclusively state whether these submunitions were delivered by the air-delivered RBK-500 SPBE cargo munition or by the 9M55K1 300-millimeter rocket, fired from the 9K58 Smerch multiple-launch rocket system.”
Assad’s regime does possess the Smerch, but it isn’t yet “known to possess the specific munitions capable of delivering SPBE series submunitions, indicating that these are likely to have been employed by Russian forces. This, taken in context with the videos mentioned above, suggests that the RBK-500 SPBE is the most likely delivery munition.”
Syrians on the ground have uploaded several videos of the supposed cluster explosions.
Elliot Higgins at Bellingcat also identified the cluster bombs as SPBE variants.
“It’s worth noting,” Higgins wrote, “that this type of cluster munition has never been used in the conflict before, despite the widespread use of at least eight other types of cluster munitions in the conflict, and the RBK-500-SPBE-D can only be delivered by aircraft.”
The Russian defense ministry has released footage from Syria depicting what appears to be air-dropped cluster bombs peppering a target.
Like Russia, the United States has not signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but the Pentagon has largely declined to use them in recent years. However, America does sell and export cluster bombs to other countries including Saudi Arabia, which drops them in Yemen.
That Russia is scattering new cluster munitions in Syria is perhaps surprising, but far from shocking. “The intervention in Syria has provided the Russian armed forces with an opportunity to test newer munitions,” ARES noted.